Finding Your Feet in Kofu (Unitas Student)

I have to admit, I was heavily aided in my preparation to live in Japan (shoutout to my school’s coordinators, James-san and Hide-san for letting me harass them to no end about the various nitty gritties that I was quite unnecessarily bothered by on hindsight). Yet, there are some aspects to living in Japan, or more specifically, Kofu, that can be a little difficult to navigate on your own. If you’re even a fraction as clueless as I typically am, I’m writing this simple guide to hopefully make your life just that much easier.

Context: I am a Japanese language student at Unitas Kofu, with a proficiency of about N4 (so basically potato), and I speak English primarily.

Prelude

Your journey in Kofu should look a little something like this — being dropped off at your new apartment by one of the staff members at Unitas, left to your own devices in an empty space with nothing but your luggage and a sense of new beginnings. Depending on how much essentials you’ve brought with you, that romanticism fizzles out really quickly. There’s only one thing you can do next.

Convenience Store/Konbini/コンビニ

Depending on where your apartment is, 100-yen stores or supermarkets may be quite inaccessible without a bicycle, which you’re probably unlikely to have from the get go. However, convenience stores (Lawson’s, 7-11, and Family Mart) are ubiquitous and should be easily found within 5 minutes of your apartment. There, you can find essentials like wet wipes, batteries, trash bags, tissue/toilet paper, as well as microwavable meals which cashiers will ask if they could heat it up for you. There are a couple of words and phrases to take note of:

1. In most stores, plastic bags are chargeable, so the first thing you’ll want to communicate to the cashier would be if you need a bag (袋/fukuro (insert Japanese number) 枚/mai) or not (袋大丈夫/fukuro daijyoubu).

2. If you’re going to buy microwavable meals, the cashier will also ask something along the lines of: (温めますか。/atatamemasuka), or, “can I heat it up for you?”

3. Occasionally, they’d also ask if you have a Point Card (a rewards card that accumulates points as you spend).

Another important point to note is that Japan has a pretty strict set of rules when it comes to binning your waste. It’s almost impossible to find trash cans along the streets, and back home, you’re expected to adhere to trash sorting protocols (burnable, non-burnable, plastics, glass, papers, and so on). I’m not going to explain in detail how to go about doing that because a) I’m still getting used to it myself, and b) you can get a condensed guide on how to sort trash from Unitas.

All you need to know is that yellow trash bags are for burnable waste and blue trash bags are for non-burnable waste. All convenience stores have them, and you can easily find them at the essentials section. From my experience, you will be using the yellow bags the most, so stockpile those.

City Hall/市役所

Within two weeks of moving in, you’re required to register your residence status and enroll in the National Health Insurance programme at the city hall. It’s fairly easy to find — just look up “City Hall” on Google Maps and it should be a straight walk down from Kofu station. There will also be a pretty noticeable 市役所 sign as you approach the building.

Inside, take the escalator to the second floor, and walk down the corridor towards your right until you see Counter 10. Ring the bell and wait for someone to assist you, to which you’ll tell them: 英語の翻訳家お願いします。/eigo no honyakuka onegaishimasu. This is to ask for an English translator; if you don’t speak English, then instead of eigo, tell them what language you speak, and if you don’t know what your language is called in Japanese, they should be able to understand what it is in English.

The reason I’m recommending a translator here is because there are quite a few complex policies that you’ll have to understand and check off during the registration process, and getting it wrong can result in scenarios like you not getting your residence certificate, which contains your own resident’s number that you’ll need to open a bank account later on. The translator will then walk you through the entire process, including signing up for health insurance, which is a separate process in itself. All in all, it should take about two hours to complete both processes.

You will also need to return to the city hall once you’ve received your Unitas student card to get a free pass for a year from having to contribute any money to your pension fund (年金/nenkin). You will have to contribute once you start having an income here. Repeat the same steps above and you should be alright.

Opening a Bank Account

There are two banks that you will probably be opening an account with — JP Post, and Yamanashi-Chuo Bank. The key difference between the two is that you can only remit abroad with Yamanashi-Chuo. You also do not need a hanko (personal seal used in lieu of signatures that you will eventually receive from Unitas) so if you’re in a rush to open an account and do not have a seal, then JP Post should suffice. Personally, I have an account in both banks — JP Post to receive part-time salaries, and Yamanashi-Chuo to receive money from family or to transfer money from my own account in my home country.

JP Post

There is a JP Post branch at the city hall, so if you’re planning on opening one, I recommend asking the same translator to help in this regard as well. The rest of the process should be straightforward, and you’ll eventually receive your cash/debit card and bank book. The only thing to note is that you’ll have to update your bank book at least once a month to avoid unnecessary probing by the authorities.

Yamanashi-Chuo

There is also a Yamanashi-Chuo branch at the city hall, but they’re not that keen in helping students individually and, chances are you’ll be asked to sign up for an account in groups through Unitas. To avoid that, go to the branch near Kofu station. It’s also a straight walk down, located next to a karaoke lounge blaring music loudly throughout the day, so you can’t miss it. Approach any staff and tell them, 新しい口座/atarashii kouza/new account, and they’ll know what to do. You MUST have with you:

1. hanko
2. Student card
3. Residence/zairyuu card
4. Resident certificate with your MyNumber that you should have received at the city hall when you registered your status
5. About an hour of your time
6. About 700 yen if you’re applying for a debit card and bank book

While the process is entirely in Japanese, you don’t really need to pay too much attention to it, and if you ever find yourself being asked a question you don’t know, the teller should be able to somehow gesture it to you or ask you again in really simple Japanese.

Registering Your Bicycle

Registering your bicycle is considered obligatory in Japan, although some experiences will attest otherwise. However, I prefer playing it safe, and it’s not very difficult to get your bicycle registered in Japan either. For reference, I brought my 8-year-old bicycle over from Singapore and all it took to convince the staff that the bicycle is mine, was an old photo of me with the same bicycle. You will obviously require no verification if you register your bicycle the moment you purchase it. The most convenient place to do this at is D2, which is just a short walk away from Unitas.

Delivery Apps

We’re in the smartphone generation, and no guide is complete without some essential apps that could make your life a little more convenient here in Kofu, especially when you’re still trying to find your bearings.

For instance, my life has been dramatically transformed since I discovered Amazon. Before, I was lugging essentials like a dumbass from D2 (Japanese equivalent of Home Depot) some 15 minutes away, but now, I can practically buy everything and have them delivered in as little as a day. I mean, I’m kinda late to the game because supermarkets and malls were all just minutes away from my home back in Singapore.

Food delivery apps have also been lifesavers during rainy days or just days when I’m too lazy to head out. Ultimately, whilst I’d recommend apps like UberEats and Foodpanda, it’s still much better to head out and explore different eateries in your vicinity and beyond. Convenience shouldn’t supersede one’s appetite to discover new places.

The best part about apps like Amazon and UberEats is that you can use your card back in your home country, allowing you to avoid the bureaucracy that is transferring money overseas with a Japanese bank account.

Final Tip

Please please please please please, for the love of Nihon, learn how to ride a bicycle if you haven’t already. Whether you’re commuting to your baito, or school, or just exploring places you’d never venture into on foot, cycling enhances your life in Japan like no other.

Personally, I’ve never felt safer cycling in Kofu, even on bustling, narrow roads, as Japanese motorists (at least in the countryside) are patient and will not attempt to pass me dangerously close like they do in Singapore. There are also exclusive cycling lanes on many streets around the city that you can use to freely traverse these roads.

Above all, cycling allows you to travel further, see and do more — picture cycling beneath vast backdrops of mountains and plains with scarcely any tall buildings to obstruct your view. It is at that moment that I learnt, freedom can be bought, and it costs about ¥20,000.

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